Words have power. They have the power that we give them - to either benefit us or hurt us. This whole concept of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” is a myth. It is not true. Words can be very damaging, but only if we appropriate the damage. We have the control over what we appropriate.
Over the next week or so, I'm going to go through some positive adjectives with you that I want you to appropriate as descriptive of your practice. I'm going to talk about these adjectives through a series of stories. Stories are powerful. People say all the time that a picture is worth a thousand words, but here’s a saying that I think is even more powerful - a story is worth a thousand pictures.
I will start with the story of our friend Atlas. Atlas teaches us about the power of Greek mythology and he teaches us about endurance.
In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan known for his incredible strength and intelligence. Atlas led the Titans when Zeus and the Olympians rose up against them. When the Titans were defeated, Zeus condemned Atlas to stand forever at the western edge of Earth and hold the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. He became Atlas Telamon, or enduring Atlas, as he carried on with his daily struggle.
You are most likely familiar with the iconic image of Atlas holding a globe on his shoulders. Even if you are not, you may have at times in your practice felt much like the picture of Atlas above, bowed down under the weight of the world.
Have you ever noticed that often in life, everybody else sees you going from point A to point B to point C to point D in a straight line? And they applaud you and celebrate you for it. Maybe, in a professional sense, some envy you for it. But what they don't see is everything that happens in between those milestones. They don’t see the volatile ups and downs and all the strain and all the pressure and everything that you have to bear on your shoulders in order to continue to build your practice.
If you want to build a practice that is going to last until the time you retire and beyond (because succession planning is critical), then it needs to have some structural elements.
The first element of endurance is intellectual capital, which is not a phrase we talk about much in the accounting profession, but it is a concept that we need to embrace. We need to embrace it very deeply. Intellectual capital is the knowledge I have in my brain and, beyond that, the appropriated knowledge that I have placed into and infused into the systems of my firm. Intellectual capital is an asset.
Some of you are going, “OK. Well, no. Capital is equity.” Don't overthink it. It's an asset for your firm. It's OK if you want to call it equity for your firm. It doesn't matter. It's still on a really good side of the equation.
The point is that you need intellectual capital to endure. There will be clients who will press against the strength of your intellectual capital. When they find weaknesses or gaps, they may not fault you for it or fire you for it. But they will supplement you because of it. The fewer cracks, weak spots, or gaps you have, the more you can be a holistic consultant to your clients. Through acting as a holistic consultant, you will build stronger trust with your clients, and you will have more enduring client relationships.
Unfortunately, too many times in our profession, we see the investment in building intellectual capital as a loss instead of as a gain. This is an easy thing to do, especially for sole practitioners who feel that pain most directly. Sole practitioners don’t have other producers creating revenue at that very moment. They are literally spending the money from their billings (hourly or value pricing) against the investment of intellectual capital.
Here is a hard truth. If you don't make the investment in intellectual capital, you are winning a battle, but you are losing the war. You will have a successful moment and you will have whatever your equivalent is of fifteen minutes of fame. Will you have enduring success?
Will your practice endure? Will your practice be something that your own children or other successors will want to buy, join, invest in or earn their way into? When everything you know and everything that is of value in your practice is stuck within the circumference of your skull, it isn't an asset for the actual company. Which brings us to the next topic.
The second element of endurance is systems and processes. Rather than just focusing on the accumulation, appropriation and documentation of knowledge, you also need to focus on the systems and processes of intellectual capital. Here are the types of questions you should be asking yourself.
- Do I have standard on-boarding processes?
- Do I have standard off-boarding processes?
- Do I have key performance indicators that will tell you exactly when and how and where to advance or retreat from a client relationship?
- Am I measuring the right things, and do I have consistent enough processes so that your measurements are relevant and scientific?
If you feel that you are just moving from brushfire to brushfire with your squirt gun, then you have not created systems and processes from your intellectual capital.
Here is another image for you - the difference between an enduring practice and a shop keep. The shop keep has a bell that rings at the front door and they only respond when the customer rings the bell. Other than that, they're maybe restocking their shelves or sitting around reading the paper or they're chatting with their friends. They hear the ding, they pop up, “How can I help you? How can I help you? How can I help you?”
I am challenging you. Do not be a reactionary shop keep. Build or perfect systems and processes so that you can act against them in proactive ways. Go out, walk down to your client's place of business (figuratively or literally), meet them where they are, and ring their bell.
The reason that we feel so frustrated, like we are armed with a squirt gun against brushfires, is because our clients are in control of our systems and processes, not us. Building and perfecting systems and processes, allows you to be pro-active not reactive and allows you to create an enduring practice.
The third element of endurance is to create a healthy and sustained team of professionals. If you have a team or plan to add additional team members, then you will need to have the standardized processes from element two documented to decrease training time, produce consistent quality work and increase your own capacity
But you might say, “Wait a minute, Joe. I want to stay a sole practitioner. I'm perfectly fine.” Absolutely, you can. But even as a sole practitioner, it takes a team. It takes a team of your peers in a network environment like we have with Woodard Alliance or Woodard Institute. It takes a team of contracted resources, a pool of people you know you can trust so that when you get outside of your area of focus, you have resources to pull you through.
Assemble your team through networking, employment or contracts. How you get there doesn’t matter. Just have a team and become the orchestra conductor of the team. Then you can scale, either through handling more clients or by handling more of your current clients’ needs.
The fourth element of endurance is mentorship. I have about five mentors in my life, people who coach me or act as a sounding board. While people looking in at my career may see a straight line, these mentors see everything going on in my life - the good, the bad, the ugly.
To create an enduring practice, you as an individual must endure as a professional and as a person. There are two kinds of relationships you need to have in your life - those that you are investing in and those who are investing in you. You need to be both a mentor and a mentee in your relationships. So, find your mentor. Trust that person - not blindly, they need to earn it - but once they have earned it, trust them. Become vulnerable with them and let them give you much needed perspective to get through your circumstances.
Execute these elements of endurance. Invest in intellectual capital. Create and perfect systems and processes around your intellectual capital. Build a team, even as a sole practitioner, who will allow you to work on your practice, not just in it. And find a mentor who will give you perspective. These four elements will allow you to build an enduring practice, for today and tomorrow.